BALLS OF STEEL: Screenwriting Pitchfests – Ripoff or Opportunity?

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor of Script and a screenwriter, having written the narrative feature adaptation as well as the 10-hr limited series of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, which was honored in the Top 25 Tracking Board Launch Pad Features Competition, CS Expo Finalist, the Second Round of Sundance Episodic Lab, and as a PAGE Awards TV Drama Finalist. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb.

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Before you say, “Since she works for a company that has it’s own screenwriting pitchfest, why should I believe what she has to say?” I’d like you to take a deep breath and trust me. Why? Because I am a screenwriter too. I am you.

The following article is my opinion, and my opinion only. While others at ScriptMag and F+W Media might share my opinion, that coincidence does not change that this stated opinion is mine. I am not representing anyone other than myself in the declaring of said opinion. Period. Are we clear now?

Good. Because this might get ugly.

I never talk politics or religion. Why? Because no one ever changes anyone’s mind, no matter how blue in the face they get when trying to make a point.

Who would have thought the topic of pitchfests on Twitter would become as volatile as a political debate and leave my head spinning like Linda Blair in The Exorcist?

Let me set up the Linda Blair-ish exchange for those who missed it on Twitter. It began with someone responding to a tweet I sent out via ScriptMag’s account, in which he claimed I only wrote the pro-pitchfest article because of all the paid conference ads on our site.

Already, there’s a misunderstanding. Why would we pay ourselves to promote our own conference? But that’s not what put a burr under my writer saddle.

I can understand his assumption that I’m towing the company line, but he was also questioning my integrity. No, you didn’t. Yeah, I was doing the finger swag.

screenwriting pitchfestOne of the many things I’ve learned in life is when one person feels a certain way, usually more than one person shares that opinion. Time to set the record straight once and for all.

Allow me to be perfectly clear for any reader who isn’t familiar with my style, my integrity and my passion for defending and protecting writers: I am no sell out. Not now. Not ever. I’d rather cut my hand off than promote something I do not believe in.

I assumed the title “Balls of Steel” made that perfectly clear, but apparently not.

When I write any piece, not just an article on pitching events, I am speaking from my heart. I write everything, and I mean everything, from the perspective of being a writer myself. I am one of you. I am not some corporate cog who jumps when someone tells me to jump. To imply I am, is insulting.

In the almost three years that I have been writing my weekly column on ScriptMag, I have never once lied to you about my experiences, my failures, my successes or my disappointments. I rip off the veneer, pry open my wounds and hand you the salt shaker, opening myself up to ridicule and embarrassment.

Why? So we can all learn from my mistakes. You learn by hearing them. I learn by analyzing them to understand where I went wrong and how I can improve my craft or business perspective.

Since I have always been honest with you, why in the hell would I change now?

End rant. Maybe. I can’t promise.

Despite not acknowledging or apologizing for his repeated personal insults, he kept claiming all he was saying is that his opinion differs from mine, and he also objects to anyone selling “hope” to writers.

Fair enough. Opinions differ. I’m the first person to agree to disagree. “Hope” on the other hand is something I’ll address in a bit.

So, let’s not talk opinions. Let’s talk facts. Facts from my own personal experiences.

One of my major pet peeves is that people who complain about the value of pitchfests are almost always ones who have never attended them. Well, I have. Many times. Let me, someone with actual experience, tell you how it really is.

Before I begin, I want to clarify I absolutely agree to disagree on anything that is opinion based. Why? Because it is a fact, not an opinion, that we live in an amazing country where we can all speak our minds freely. It’s also a fact that there is more than one way to break into Hollywood. This person may be doing quite well without ever having attended a pitching event. Bravo to him! I genuinely applaud whatever paths he’s taken that have worked for him. While others, like myself, enjoy the experience of mass pitching and find value in it.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat and as many ways to break into screenwriting as there are successful screenwriters. No two paths are alike.

Let’s take this one at a time, starting with claims I have heard from not only this one person challenging me, but also others. Please note, I am merely presenting my own personal experience that may or may not reflect yours. This is not a debate of who is right or wrong. This is my experience from years of networking, long before I was Script’s Editor, and my personal opinions, not necessarily those of my company.

1. Pros don’t believe in pitchfests: Has anyone really polled all the pros? Seems to me some of them must believe or why else would they be keynote speakers and lecturers. But I have absolutely heard of some pros who do not believe in paying to pitch, which I’ll address later. Even if that were true, that all pros collectively disliked pitchfests, every pitchfest I know of consists of more than just the pitching event. There are classes to learn about both the craft and the industry, often taught by professional writers themselves. Who would object to a screenwriter learning how to present themselves to executives? This is a skill you will need when you have general meetings set up by your future agents. Who would object to learning more about honing their craft? No matter how good you are at pitching, if your script can’t stand out, you’re doomed.

Fact: I did find it ironic that two of the people coming to my defense on Twitter both are professional writers. One has sold/optioned nearly 20 scripts, signed seven-figure deals and three picture deals. The other is one of the most talented professional writers I know but chooses to not flaunt his career online. He only has a social media presence to selflessly help writers… for free. Lesson to those who tweet: You never know who you’re talking with so don’t make assumptions. They might be “bigger” than you realize.

But let’s assume all pros do object specifically to writers paying for pitching, which I’ve already established they don’t, but moving on…

2. Don’t pay to attend pitchfests. Does he think they should be free? How could someone spend countless hours organizing to get as many as 100 or so executives in a room, feed them, rent a space large enough to place the tables and not expect you to pay for the opportunity and advantage of having so many executives in one place… where you don’t have to drive through L.A. traffic to get to the next table to pitch. I’ve had as many as 17 pitches in a given day at an event. Do you know how long that would have taken me if I had to drive all over town for those meetings? Or how many trips to L.A. I would have to make to meet them on their schedule? How much that would cost me in gas and air travel? Or how long it would have taken me to get these executives to agree to meet me in the first place?

Then there’s The Black List’s relatively new service, where for a monthly fee, your script has the possibility of being discovered by executives who visit the site. Again, that is paying to pitch, albeit a different kind of pitching. Why should you pay? Because The Black List is providing a valuable service and platform you could not create yourself that is built on their reputation in the industry of recognizing great scripts. When someone does all the work for you, you need to pay them for their services. Period.

People work hard to help writers get discovered out of passion and love for our craft and efforts. Don’t assume just because a price tag for the service exists, those people are trying to gouge writers. Again, in my opinion, this is Business 101, not robbery.

pitchfestsAs ScriptMag contributor Jeff Richards said to me recently, these platforms are merely tools for writers to learn from. “To hate them is like hating a hammer and a wrench.”

Maybe you’re not a hammer guy. Maybe you’re a screwdriver. That’s the point. If you don’t like using one tool, try another, but don’t ignore the tools simply because you’re unfamiliar.

Does that mean every pitching event or networking site that charges is valid? Of course not. That’s your job to research them and decide what fits your lifestyle, your budget and your goals.

One thing a writer could do on a budget is get an IMDb Pro account (relatively cheap) or Hollywood Screenwriting Directory to research companies and cold call or query them the old-fashioned way. It still works. In fact, one of our readers queried dozens of companies before coming out to SWCW last year and had meetings set up outside of the event while he was in town. He maximized his trip in the best possible way with the combination of tools.

Fact: I took the time to count up how many pitchfest pitches I have done over the years and how many of those people I am still in touch with, years after meeting them on a 5-minute “speed date,” and with whom I still have an open door to present my work via an email or a phone call.

Pitched: 117.
Still in my network: 89.
Not bad odds.

Many of those 89 people have graciously given me introductions to other people in their own networks, which more than doubled my connections. I returned the favor when I could, connecting writers, agents, and producers whose philosophies and work interests matched. Give to receive. For pitching 117 execs, I now have at least 200 people in the industry in my contact list, and it grows every day.

Caution: If you meet execs and drop the ball at staying in touch, you wasted the trip. You need to do the work after the event, not just during, in order to make the contacts last.

Here’s a perfect example, and Bonus Fact: Scriptchat, a Twitter screenwriting chat I co-founded with Zac Sanford, Jamie Livingston, Kim Garland and Mina Zaher, would not have been born if not for my attending a pitching event in 2007 and pitching to Zac. Yes, he turned the script down, but we stayed in touch on social media and nurtured our friendship both professionally and personally. Scriptchat is a project we’ve helmed for years, tirelessly helping writers for no personal gain. I believe my record of supporting and loving those in my community is as solid as it gets. So when someone claims I am “ripping them off,” that makes my Sicilian blood boil.

End rant… again. Maybe.

But aren’t these people just assistants to the assistants, you ask?

3. Only lower-level execs listen to pitches: Um. No. Because of today’s economy, more and more indie production companies are attending, with the final decision makers sitting right at the table, not assistants to the assistants. Many are managers and agents who want to meet potential clients face-to-face. In smaller production companies, you’re pitching to a development exec. But let’s play devil’s advocate and assume they are all assistants to the assistants. Guess what? Today’s assistant is tomorrow’s studio head.

Fact: Of those 89 execs I am still in touch with, about half have moved up in their companies or moved onto a different company at a higher position or started their own production company. The ones I lost touch with either dropped out of the business, or we just didn’t “click” on a personal or professional level. Yes, not everyone likes me and my writing. I’m cool with that. It’s important everyone trying to succeed in any career have the ability to manage their expectations.

Which now brings me to the most important issue of all, hope.

4. Pitchfests only sell hope. Pitching events and conferences are marketed as learning and networking events. That is exactly what they are. And yes, they sell hope. Hope you will learn something from attending. Hope you will connect in a community of like-minded writers who understand you the way your own family doesn’t. Hope you will meet an executive who likes your work. Even the executives attending have hope they will find that “diamond in the rough” to discover.

Hope is sold in every level of our lives in every kind of business, not just screenwriting.

What I found fascinating was this person’s objection to writers attending pitchfests having hope, as if hope was a bad thing? Allow me to paraphrase a side discussion I had with one of the pro writers in my network: The writers who attend pitchfests are not children. They are educated adults who are capable of managing expectations and understanding a pitchfest script request does not guarantee a Studio Development Deal. The events are structured around an educational environment that allows people who live in and outside of L.A. to have a one-day pass inside the gates. What you make of that day is up to you… and up to the quality of your writing.

Fact: If you show up unprepared, with no one sheets, with no prepared pitch, with no logline or high-concept idea, then it wouldn’t matter how many people you pitch, you won’t get requests for reads. If you show up with all of those things, get requests and then email a half-baked script to them, you’ll get a pass. Hope can only go so far. After hope, you need the work to back it up.

Bonus Fact: The reason you don’t see high numbers of films being produced from pitching events is not because the pitching events are scams. It is because most of the people attending them are newer writers without the chops to make it, either in the persona they present while pitching or in writing. But by attending and getting feedback on your pitching and on your writing, you will improve. I know I did. The first pitching event I went to changed my entire perspective of the business side of the industry and the craft. I went too soon. I was green. The fact that I “failed” at getting a sale wasn’t because I was at a pitching event. It was because my script sucked. (See Balls of Steel: Dear New Screenwriter.)

But overall, I did not “fail.” Why?

Because each event I attended, I became better. Stronger, both in pitching and in my writing. So much so that since then, I’ve had meetings with presidents of major production companies and didn’t even flinch while sitting in their offices in my jeans and flip flops, talking craft and my ideas.

Let’s face it, writers are not born with the gift a gab. Many of us would prefer hiding in our caves, writing in our pajamas, and having an agent to do all the networking. But that ain’t gonna happen.

Writing is your business. YOUR business. Part of business is meeting people. Every major company and industry has conferences and events to attend for networking and learning. Screenwriting is no different.

One last note on hope: Right now, as I fly to L.A., I’m on a plane full of people excited to hit Las Vegas… and full of hope. They hope to hit the jackpot, just as writers hope the same. Will they come home broke? Maybe. But some will come home winners. Not necessarily because their wallets are bulging with money. But because they rolled the dice and took the ride of chance.

They lived. They went after what they wanted. What they hoped for.

To me, that’s priceless.

When the screenwriters of any pitching event fly home, they may have less money in their wallets too, but they’ll be full of hope… and business cards to help them build a future, successful career.

So yeah, I respectfully agree to disagree.

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17 thoughts on “BALLS OF STEEL: Screenwriting Pitchfests – Ripoff or Opportunity?

  1. Pingback: Pitch Fests: Should You Pay to Pitch? 4 Rock Solid Rules for Pitch Fests. - Producing Unscripted

  2. Great American PitchFest

    Jeanne, you are a smart women and so right.

    PitchFests are a tool, and it is up to the writer to create their own career. Using the opportunities and classes you can take at a PitchFest or Screenwriting Conference can only help you to do that. But it is up to the writer to take those lessons, and the contacts they make at events such as these to create their best opportunities.

    Thank you for helping to make the writing world a better place, Jeanne.

  3. Stonelock

    I just registered an account (you guys should seriously consider the Facebook plugin for comments) just to tell you how exactly right you were on every single point. I was at the pitch slam this past weekend, except on the other side of the table and you took all of the words out of my mouth. These events are gold mines. Absolute gold mines for any writer. The real reason? 99% of the scripts and ideas suck. If you truly have a killer script/concept, you could easily perk the ears of a dozen execs in a day. Even with an agent that’s hard to do, as there’s no chance in the world you’re going to get a dozen meetings in a day. Or two. Or probably even three. It’s as simple as that. If you go to one of these things packing heat, you’re going to get a reaction.

    Here’s my advice. Take this to heart because it’s the truth. The key to pitching is to hook someone in the first 10 seconds. That’s all the time you have. ESPECIALLY at these events. My brain hurt, ached by lunch time. Come 2 o’clock I felt like I was going to almost short circuit. I can’t imagine how the Sony guy felt. Why 10 seconds? Because after that, I involuntarily drift off. I’m sitting in a room being talked at for five and a half hours by at least 30 (felt like 90) people back to back, non-stop with literally seconds in-between. I find myself throwing people every single time they pitched because I’d immediately interrupt them when they sat down to ask if they had a logline. One of three things happens. The first one unfortunately all but disqualified you in my mind which was “In space.. No one can hear you scream.” Right. That’s a TAGLINE. You just showed me you have no idea what you’re doing 10 seconds in. Second, a very long pause, where I could tell they’re having an internal crisis of “Oh my god, I’m blowing my big moment”, which they weren’t, but it shows me you don’t REALLY know what your movie is about if you can’t tell me in one sentence off the cuff. It also tells me you have no elevator pitch what so ever. That’s all ANY exec wants to hear. The third thing that happened is, they’d reach for a one sheet and read me their logline. The third one is actually fine. Loglines are tough to rattle off because they’re not written to be spoken aloud. I don’t mind someone reading me their logline. I don’t mind it at all. I do mind being slid a one sheet and being expected to read it while we’re sitting there. I know that may sound callous, but it’s like “It’s your movie man. You tell ME what it’s about.” I don’t want to sit there and read in silence with you sitting there. The point is, start short. People forget that not everyone has been there in your brain, forming your twists, visualizing your characters and set pieces. You need to give me a general overview, right up front. When you start out “Tim is a 30 year old running from his brother Tom, and then they run into the mysterious headquarters of the NOMEGA group to escape the Kalltar” I have no clue what the fuck you’re talking about. What GENRE is this?? What the hell is this about? No one can listen to that for five minutes. Walk up and say “Hey, great to meet you. I’ll keep this short. Here’s a sci-fi thriller along the lines of such and such meets such and such. A team of astronauts get stuck on the moon after their craft is damaged. Thing’s get weird when they start hearing voices.” I just made that up but you get the idea. Paint the picture for me. Let me at least get there with you before you go off on a tangent. People seem to think pitching is literally reading me the script from page one. I don’t give a shit about page one. I want to know what the hell happens in one breath. Then you continue to tell me cool sentences until we run out of time, and I’m left feeling like, man I’ve gotta know more. And then we exchange info and you’ve genuinely peaked my interest. In five and a half hours, that happened all of ZERO TIMES. Everyone starts at page one. Write a killer logline, and if it’s weird to say aloud, come up with a verbal logline, tell me your genre, tell me your tone, and tell me the title. Blockbuster video used to be a reverse pitch fest. Thousands of movie studios are pitching to the audience. We’ve got everything sorted by genre, and we’ve got thousands of little visual loglines in the forms of DVD covers. We’ve got a tiny one sheet on the back if the front has perked your interest. Imagine if you walked into a video store and there were no covers, no titles, nothing was sorted by genre.. It was just some guy’s voice coming out of the DVD box going “Tom lives in Oklahoma where he drives a Ford tempo, his wife Peg moved from home at 19..” you’d never rent a movie in your life! You’re in a room full of people that you’re trying to convince to spend at LEAST a MILLION DOLLARS to bring your idea to life. You’ve gotta articulate that idea so clearly and interestingly.. And it has to start in the first ten seconds. Another gripe I have (if you’re still reading) is that no one seems to pay attention to what the companies are looking for. They sit down and say “What are you looking for?” We all filled out a survey before the event answering this exact question. You’re wasting both of our time if you aren’t paying attention to that. I wrote in uppercase “STRONG HIGH CONCEPT LOGLINES”. That’s what I want, yet after an entire day of pitches, I did not receive ONE. You know what I did get at least a dozen of? Low concept psychological thrillers. No hook and nothing unique. Some boring guy being chased by some boring FBI agent. This has got to be hands down the most pitched concept of the past decade. If this is your passion, FIND A HOOK. If there’s no story hook, find a character hook. Find SOMETHING that’s interesting. You’re a writer! Your job is to think of cool, interesting shit! Sorry this turned into a rant more than an attempt at giving advice. Hopefully this made a small amount of sense. Jeanne you’ve got a great column here and everything you said is dead on.

    1. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

      Stonelock, you just made my day. Gotta say, nothing thrills me more than an exec who is willing to keep it real and offer invaluable advice to readers. If you’re cool with it, I want to quote you in my next article. I don’t have contact info for you, so if you read this, can you ping me ?

      What I love most about your advice is it drives home two important things: 1. These events are important for a writer to learn the art of pitching, and 2. The reason we don’t see high success rates at pitchfests isn’t because pitchfests are a “rip off,” it’s because most of the writers who attend are too green to deliver a high concept idea with a solid pitch. The very first pitching event I attended, back in 2007, the exec said to me and my then writing partner, “You are the diamonds in the rough I was hoping to find.” That is all it takes. Stand out, pitch professionally and have a solid idea and you will get noticed.

      Thanks so much for sharing your honest advice, Stonelock. And I appreciate you taking the extra step to register in order to leave the comment. That alone speaks to how passionate you are in helping writers learn.

  4. rsdomingo

    Mama mia! Learn a thing or two from your story. Thanks.

    Its all about experience and learning.

    Iam an immigrant from the Philippines, almost to reach 50 years, old, been a newspaper editor for almost 15 years back home, and now i found a new passion here in the great USA – scriptwriting.

    Many said its too late for me. But i will keep on writing because i love to do it. I will use all the tools available – pitchfests included – to share my stories.

    Your story inspires me. Thanks again and hope to cross paths with you.

  5. Steve Barclay

    I just found this installment of Balls of Steel. Every point you make, I couldn’t agree more. I probably wouldn’t have gone to a pitch fest, Jeanne, if it wasn’t for your energy. It’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.

    I went to Screenwriters World this past weekend (I saw you there, but didn’t get the opportunity to say hi to you in person. Next time I’ll be sure to say hi!) All I can say is, what a fantastic experience! I have an MA in creative writing, and I learned more this past weekend than I did in some of my graduate classes. Nothing beats the information gleaned from hands on experience, and there were a lot of people there who had that “in the trenches” take on this industry, and they were all willing to share it. You don’t get that from too many places.

    On top of the experience, I pitched to 11 people at the pitch fest, and I received 8 read requests. I came back to my hotel room exhausted after each day, but I still couldn’t keep from fiddling with my script. Yeah, it gave me hope. I’d gladly pay for that kind of hope again if, for nothing else, the motivation I got to improve my writing. Now I’ve got to get my screenplay up to snuff so I can send it off to all those who requested it. I don’t know if anything will come of it. That’s all up to me at this point. But I do know that I wouldn’t have made those eight connections without the pitch fest.

    So thank you for this post and thank you for all that energy you’ve shown in this post and in so many of your others that prompted me to take the first nerve-racking step toward moving my writing career to the next level. And boo to the nay sayers! Last week I wasn’t sure if I could sit down with someone and pitch my idea. Now, after one day, I know I can do it, and I’m ready to do it as often as I can.

  6. BrendoNZ

    Definitely on your side for this Jeanne, for what it’s worth. I attended last year’s SWCW and can honestly say it was the best decision of my career to date.

    Yes I spent a some money (flew from New Zealand), but the actual experience of pitching to execs was frightening, exciting, and eye-opening. I didn’t end up selling anything (although had a few requests), mainly because I was extremely green, but the fact that I had face time with these people made me that much stronger.

    Beyond the pitching, I learnt plenty from the professional lectures, and I made connections and meaningful relationships with fellow writers who continue to make me a stronger writer.

    Thank you for your passion and dedication to helping writers the world over, it seriously means a lot. Hopefully I’ll get over there again sometime soon!

  7. chipstreet

    Phew. I’m exhausted! Your passion hits the page, that’s for sure. I haven’t yet done a pitchfest but plan to one day. Need to get more scripts ready first.

    I’ll def choose one where you’re presenting!


  8. Rachel

    Hi-ZELL yeah, Jeanne!

    Wow. You addressed this like a seasoned lawyer. Point by point. Set it up, build the case, knock it down. Frickin’ awesome job. I know you’re Sicilian, but I think you have a little of the argumentative Irish in you, too. If not, I’ll give you some of mine… but you might have to replace every other tequila shot with a sip of whiskey. 🙂

    Me? I’ve not yet been to a pitch-fest. But because of your eloquent descriptions, heart-felt promotion, and now, passionate defense… I’m planning to attend both the NY and LA events next year. And I’m using those events as the catalyst (read: drop-dead, you-die-if-you-don’t-have-your-shit-together-by-then deadline) to get my two in-progress scripts finished by then (and a couple of one-pages).

    Keep kickin’ ass, Jeanne!